This Exquisite Loneliness: What Loners, Outcasts, and the Misunderstood Can Teach Us About Creativity by Richard Deming; Viking, 336 pp., $29
It’s now official: America is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. That’s not a metaphor—it is, according to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a major public health crisis. On May 3, Murthy formally announced a “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection” geared toward reducing the emotional isolation that is damaging our psyches and our bodies.
Public health experts have been warning for years about the toll loneliness can take. But the scope of the problem, as laid out by Murthy and others, is striking—not just how many people are lonely but how much damage that loneliness does. The lonely are at substantially elevated risk for heart disease, stroke, obesity, addiction, and dementia; being lonely increases your overall risk of premature death by more than 60 percent. And the number of Americans afflicted by loneliness is not small: a recent survey found that more than 50 percent of us reported feeling lonely—and that was before the pandemic forced us to pioneer new frontiers in physical isolation, leading to rising rates of loneliness and concomitant increases in anxiety, depression, and addiction. Among young adults between 18 and 25, according to a recent Harvard study, an astonishing 61 percent reported experiencing “serious loneliness” in 2021. Perhaps even more ominously in this fraught moment for American democracy, an excess of loneliness can have political consequences: Hannah Arendt concluded her 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism with a meditation on how when loneliness metastasizes into “an everyday experience” (as opposed to being something that afflicts just, say, the elderly), a large swath of the populace seeks to assuage its aloneness by submitting to a charismatic fascist—a precondition for the rise of tyranny.
Murthy’s national strategy seeks to combat loneliness as a public health scourge. But for some people, loneliness, whether due to temperament or life circumstances, seems to be an inescapable existential condition. They feel an unbridgeable apartness from other people, even when in crowds. (Feeling lonely among a group of people is, I can say from experience, a special kind of awfulness.) People don’t like to talk about this: loneliness, some clinical psychologists contend, is more stigmatized than depression because people fear that it bespeaks an emotional neediness that feels shameful to admit.
In this interesting and far-ranging book, Richard Deming, who directs the creative writing program at Yale, has undertaken not just to analyze the phenomenon of chronic loneliness but also to manage his own. Throughout his life he has sought out the work of writers and artists who themselves have worked to diminish the pain of their loneliness by spelunking into it and examining it, and then trying to create their way out of it. “Loneliness,” the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote, is “a process of self-poisoning, whose anti-toxins lie in the creative attitude.”
Deming has structured the book as a collection of literary portraits of six disparate figures who each struggled with loneliness, and depicted it through their work: Benjamin; the early Freudian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein; the anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston; the documentary photographer Walker Evans; the early modernist painter Egon Schiele; and the TV writer Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone. Working in different eras, in different places, and in different media, each of these writers expressed alienation in ways that resonated with Deming, lending him comfort at crucial moments, their loneliness touching his own across the gaps of space and time, sparking small moments of connection and consolation.
But the book was catalyzed by another lonely person, the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose fatal drug overdose in 2014 chilled Deming, in part because Hoffman, like Deming, had clearly used drugs to medicate his loneliness. Hoffman—“the Marlon Brando of loneliness,” as Deming puts it—was known for his gifted portrayals of the lost and lonely, from Willy Loman to Truman Capote, but those roles, Deming writes, may have consumed him. Deming himself, who got sober in the early 1990s, writes that “the loneliness that I had wrestled with since I was a little kid stood at the core of my substance abuse,” which subjected him to epic blackouts, jail time, and odd, desperate behaviors, like roaming the streets of Boston with a flask of Jack Daniels in his sleeve, asking random strangers what time it was, just for a fleeting moment of human interaction. Hoffman’s death, after what had been a reputed two decades of sobriety, prompted Deming to undertake an exploration of loneliness, seeking to better understand it so that it wouldn’t sneak up on him and take him down the way it did Hoffman.
“What can we do about loneliness?” he asks. “What can we do with loneliness? What can we make out of it?” Well, art for one thing; connection, for another. That’s an abiding irony of loneliness; the pain of isolation drives us to seek its balm in human connection. Deming argues that the pain of exclusion or isolation forges a sharpening of emotional self-awareness, which leads in turn to a deepening of a “transformative empathy” that can nurture connection with others. This is the “exquisite loneliness” of his book’s title.
Deming mines the lives and the work of his subjects for their relevance to his theme. For instance, he is drawn to Melanie Klein’s notion that the early-childhood awakening of consciousness to our separateness from our mothers is our proverbial banishment from the Garden of Eden; our loss of “the paradise of being indistinguishably connected to another person” leaves us with a permanent feeling of (in Klein’s words) “irretrievable loss” and “a ubiquitous yearning” for that previous state of wholeness. When Deming first reads Zora Neale Hurston’s 1942 memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, he identifies with her feeling of being shadowed by what she calls a “cosmic loneliness” and is inspired by her work to try to develop “a cultural anthropology of loneliness.” From Walker Evans’s anonymous subway photographs, he gleans the universality of loneliness and the possibility of moving from narcissism to empathy. (The tragicomic denouement of Evans’s aborted threesome with his famous writerly collaborator James Agee and Agee’s wife, Alma—the whole episode is an object lesson in the perils of seeking connection through sex—alone makes this chapter worth reading.) From Egon Schiele, whom Deming discovered via David Bowie and Lou Reed, he starts to appreciate the value of offering up one’s rawest, ugliest, most vulnerable self (as Schiele did with his intense, naked self-portraits) and saying, “Accept me.” And from Rod Serling—well, I’ll just say I had no idea of the wartime horrors (among them, seeing his best friend decapitated at close range in the South Pacific) that infused his creative imagination. Beneath The Twilight Zone’s clever conceits and mind-bending twists runs a haunting undercurrent of loneliness. Compulsively watching episodes of the show while living apart from his wife in the lonely winter and spring of 2016, Deming comes to appreciate what he calls Serling’s “poetics of loneliness.”
The artists Deming has selected make him perforce into a bard of lonely endings. At one time the belle of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston ended up friendless and out of literary favor, working as a maid and librarian and substitute teacher to support herself, dying not knowing that from the wasteland of obscurity she would attain posthumous canonical status with Their Eyes Were Watching God. A German-Jewish intellectual, Benjamin died by his own hand on September 26, 1940, taking an overdose of morphine in a small town on the French-Spanish border after the Nazis swarmed into his adopted home of France, his escape to Spain blocked by bureaucrats at the border. “It is in a tiny village in the Pyrenees, where no one knows me, that my life must come to its end,” he wrote in a suicide note. Evans, not long before the stroke that took his life, quoted Dante before an intake evaluation at the New Haven psychiatric ward precipitated by his progressive alcoholism: “I crave oblivion.” Schiele endured the indignity of having his work burned in court for its “offense against public morals” and then watched his wife and unborn child get extinguished by the 1918 flu epidemic. He succumbed to the virus himself three days later. (This lonely man’s final interactions with visitors could be only via a reflection in a mirror in his sickroom doorway, set up so as to spare them exposure to the deadly infection.) In 1975, Serling died during open heart surgery necessitated by years of drinking, smoking, and overwork, his post–Twilight Zone output mostly forgettable.
Yet for all these forlorn endings, this is a warm and hopeful book. As Deming has drawn solace from these tristes (to borrow from Susan Sontag’s description of Benjamin), so can we draw solace from him. His book is a message in a bottle to the tristes and isolatos and lonelyhearts of the world. He is trying to write himself out of isolation, and in doing so, he is offering readers the gift of connection. “Human beings must involve themselves in the anguish of other human beings,” Serling wrote. “This, I submit to you, is not a political thesis at all. It is simply an expression of what I would hope might be ultimately a simple humanity for humanity’s sake.”
Only connect, as E. M. Forster put it. Easier said than done, of course. People are scary. “Hell is other people,” Sartre wrote, contra Forster. But with this brave and intelligent book, Richard Deming has made it a little bit less difficult for the rest of us.
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